Those of us who favor conservative public policies are better at asking for some things than others:
Lower taxes? Check.
Less government regulation? Check.
More personal responsibility? Well, er, um …
The first obligation of a self-governing people is to govern their own selves. The Founders’ concept of individual liberty was rooted in their understanding it would require personal responsibility. Without the latter, the former won’t last long.
There’s an argument to be made that restrictions on liberty have the effect of eroding personal responsibility, leading to a vicious cycle. But every now and then, an example of irresponsibility arises from a wholly new situation.
In Atlanta, so-called e-scooters or shared scooters have quickly become ubiquitous. These electrically powered scooters can be unlocked and rented for a short ride at a low cost – over a few miles, the price is less than a MARTA ticket. For many riders, part of the appeal is they need not be returned to a particular dock but can be dropped off wherever your ride takes you.
Therein lies the problem, for non-users.
Sidewalks across Atlanta are littered with the scooters. Some riders leave them sprawled all the way across a sidewalk. The riders’ convenience has become a public nuisance and public officials are fed up.
Athens banned the scooters late last year. Having watched the experience in Atlanta, Athens and other cities, Savannah and Macon pre-emptively outlawed them. This past Thursday, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Bottoms signed an executive order forbidding any new scooter licenses; of the roughly 12,000 “dockless” scooters and bicycles already permitted in the city, about 3,000 have been impounded due to misuse.
They’re not only a nuisance but a safety hazard. Atlanta pedestrians fear being run over by scooter riders, and motorists fear running over one. In July, a scooter rider died after becoming trapped under a bus; exactly how the accident occurred was unclear, and the bus driver was not charged.
But less serious accidents have become fairly commonplace. A report by the city of Portland, Oregon, found 176 scooter riders between July and November 2018 had accidents that required treatment at an emergency room or urgent care clinic. That’s one injury per 3,979 trips.
For comparison: The federal government measures auto-related injuries per 100 million miles traveled. In 2016, there were 99 injuries per 100 million miles traveled.
Extrapolated from those four months of data, the comparable rate for scooters in Portland was 21,948 per 100 million miles traveled – about 220 times as frequent.
There’s nothing inherently dangerous about riding one of the scooters, though often riders neglect to bring along a helmet (which is not provided with the rental). It’s possible the injury rate isn’t as bad in other jurisdictions. Even if it is, it could well decline as riders gain experience.
It’s also conceivable that riders will stop being such slobs on the sidewalks, although their self-interest in behaving themselves may be too little, too late.
These downsides of these popular scooters are a shame, because they do have benefits. As I already mentioned, they’re generally cheaper than public transportation, and more flexible. They represent a private investment, not taxpayer dollars. They’ve grown from virtually zero rides in 2017 to 38.5 million nationwide last year, according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials. That, despite their presence in relatively few locations.
To some extent, what we’re seeing is a dual tragedy of the commons. Scooter owners – companies like Bird and Lime — are non-existent as far as riders are concerned (they pay nearby residents to collect and re-charge the devices). And because the sidewalks belong to everyone, they are cared for by none.
This is exactly the kind of problem that calls for personal responsibility, safeguarding the good while eliminating the ills. Government regulation is a blunt instrument that ultimately will rob us of the good. But it’s an instrument the careless have brought upon themselves.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.